The 99 Classic we reviewed last year came out of nowhere to be perhaps the 2016 sleeper hit in terms of enjoyable headphones. It sounded great, looked the part and had a price tag that was more than reasonable in today’s inflated market.
We scored it an 8.3 at the time, with the only caveats being the comfort levels and the shallow pads as well as the microphonic cables but other than that it was a solid mid-fi performer.
Come 2017 and we have Meze’s new release, the 99 Neo, which follows the same form factor as the Classic but now sports different pads, a slightly reworked tuning and an altogether different type of finish.
Gone is the wood and in comes a more understated cast zinc alloy hardware with an electroplated coating designed for those who want something a bit more subtle.
It is also priced at $249 which is $50 less than the 99 Classic, possibly enhancing the value proposition even more but how different does it sound and who should buy it?
What Is The Pitch?
Meze is very clear on who they want to buy the 99 Neo as opposed to the wood finished 99 Classic. This is a “darker, edgier” finish aimed squarely at the hipster metro dudes who want something a bit more ‘timeless’ but still highly fashionable.
It is the same core 40mm driver supra-aural design but the materials and finish have been changed as well as the pads. This is now designed for better comfort but less ostentatious in its aesthetics and something that could sit casually by the side of a laptop in Starbucks. The phrase ‘contemporary styling’ has been used and it is that and then some, yet it’s still unmistakably Meze.
Much like the 99 Classic every component of the 99 Neo is designed entirely in-house. In keeping with the in-house engineering ethic, the 99 Neo is also designed in such a way that practically every part is replaceable which, quite apart from making DIY guys sit up and take notice, also means the warranty on these cans is pretty rock solid.
Meze describes the 99 Neo has having a warm, naturally balanced sound. Much like the 99 Classic then I am expecting the pitch of the 99 Neo to appeal to those who want to enjoy music without any loss of fidelity or simply those looking for a highly musical signature.
There is no change in the form factor with the 99 Neo. The shape and articulated parts look and work in the same manner as with the 99 Classic with its twin-beam headband frame and self-adjusting headband strap as well as the non-rotating small circumaural cup shape and detachable ear pads.
As before the 99 Neo has a detachable cable dual entry design and is not uni-directional meaning no left-right which is controlled on the cable side. This also means you can wear the 99 Neo in any direction unlike say the LCD-2 or HD650 which has a very definite front face.
Weight & Dimensions
Weight and dimensions are also unchanged at 260g without the cables which, given the change in material used on the cups, is a pretty good effort in terms of consistent design results. The 99 Neo, much like the 99 Classic, is a little bit on the big side to be truly portable, more of a transportable class such as the AEON from MrSpeakers but its form factor and build is robust and attractive for taking around with you.
The materials used and the finish on the 99 Neo have changed a lot though. Gone are the earthy tones of the wood cups and in comes a cast zinc alloy with electroplated coating finished in a very ‘urbanite’ coal-black textured finish. It is as visually striking as the wood cups were visually inviting, not to say they repel, they just simply look more manly.
In its favor, the design now looks very harmonized with all the components being black except for the silver accents of the stamped manganese spring steel headband as the matching rings on the edge of the cups. The 99 Classic though does have a greater variety of color schemes but the 99 Neo is indeed the very image of contemporary and minimalist.
You will, however, find the cups a touch smudgy, in tropical climes any residue moisture will show up quickly when handling the cups giving a slightly uneven patchwork of shines. It will dry off however so it’s not a permanent issue. A single wipe with a cloth will fix that if you really must.
You get one short cable as opposed to long and short with the 99 Classic. The included cable is a 4ft long primarily portable use cable. A second was supplied for review purposes and is a 10ft long cable intended more for desktop use. You will not get the long one in the production run of the 99 Neo. The included cable comes with an inline button remote for use with Smartphones and Android capable DAPs.
The cable is terminated with gold plated 3.5mm 4-pole jack for the inline microphone and playback module. The Y split and jack metal covers are in a matching silver accent to compliment the rest of the headphone finish with the Meze logo on the front. You connect to the 99 Neo in the same manner as before with 2 3.5mm mono jack plugs which lock when pushed in tightly.
The material finish has changed though. On the 99 Classic, you had a nylon jacket on the short cable extending up from the y-split metal tubes. On the 99 Neo cable its now a rubber jacket beyond the y-split.
The net effect on the short cable with the material change is positive. It is more pliant beyond the y-split which helps with controlling the inline remote module as well as reducing the microphonics significantly more than the older cable. It is dead quiet actually below the y-split.
Comfort & Seal
The headband itself is a very durable and solid twin band structure that does not sit on your head. Instead, it keeps the whole design rock solid and rigid, applies the pressure and clamping as well as acting as the support for the supple leather headband system that sits just underneath.
There is no actual step type or slider system for adjusting the leather band to fit your head, you simply just put it on and it will stretch according to your head size with two small elastic material finishes on each side of the cups.
This is the most crucial change and perhaps the most discussed change covering both the 99 Classic and the 99 Neo. Previously, the PU leather pads on the 99 Classic were a bit shallower. Some with smaller ears found no comfort issues, others perhaps found them too shallow with ears touching the drivers making it less comfortable.
In my previous review I did state “I would have loved to have seen these with plusher thicker pads and a slightly better depth for comfort reasons if the same sound signature can stay intact.” Well, before the release of the 99 Neo they did indeed bring out new thicker pads, several versions with I believe version 2 I received a while back for the 99 Classic and version 3 on the new 99 Neo.
Pressure Balance & Seal
Version 3 looks a touch more supple than version 2 but otherwise have a roomier fit than the older thinner version one and take the ear much further away from the driver making is a very comfortable wear and still seals as good if not better than the original 99 Classic Pads.
That snug feeling at the top and bottom of my ear that made things uncomfortable after an hour or so is now gone. So also the unwanted downward pressure at the top of the ear is replaced by a more even pressure balance across the ear that makes a big difference in comfort levels.
Accessories & Packaging
The package is much the same which is a good thing because the original Meze 99 Classic retail box and the accessory line up were great for the price point. The visuals have changed on the retail box, it’s now white as opposed to black with a more informative visual display.
Inside you get a semi-stiffened contoured zipper case for carrying the headphones as well as a little NAD inspired zipper round bag inside for holding your accessories between the headphones when on the go. Aside from that Meze has included an airline adapter as well as a quarter jack adapter with the 99 Classic.
The hard case finish though has changed from a plain black pleather finish to a meshed nylon finish that feels a lot tougher but also a bit more eye-catching.
The 99 Neo has a slightly darker tonal signature than the 99 Classics, especially when you compare the 99 Neo with the new pads and the 99 Classic with the original pads. The tonal difference becomes less marked when you slip on the new pads to the 99 Classic but it still has some variations.
With the older classic you got a musical and dynamic signature with a boosted warm and heavy-hitting midbass response and slightly less sub-bass rumble. On the 99 Neo, you still get a fairly impactful low end but the mid-bass is less accentuated, perhaps not quite as tight and a bit more leveled off.
The Classic’s vocal presence has also dropped back just a little on the 99 Neo in comparison giving it that slightly darker sound but its marginal especially if both are using the new pads.
Treble response on both is easy on the ear with a slightly boosted mid to upper treble from 7-10k over a more subdued lower treble that provides a nice contrast to the heightened bass presence of the 99 Neo.
The presentation is still intimate and in keeping with the closed nature of the headphone design, but, perhaps as a consequence of the different deeper pads and internal chamber design the 99 Neo places the vocals a touch further back. Kind of like the difference between row 5 of a concert and the front and center mosh pit.
Height and depth are a little more balanced and provide a nice contrast so I find the 99 Neo just to be a little more biased to quality EDM than the 99 Classics’ more aggressive stance that favored old school rock.
Whilst it is still full sounding and impactful there is an ever so slight drop in emphasis from 50-100Hz in the 99 Neo compared to the 99 Classic’s bigger mid-bass boost. However, the sustained elevation is a bit longer and only starts dropping around 200-300Hz whereas the Classic drops a bit more over the same response region. This gives the 99 Classic’s mid-bass more of a defined bump compared to the more diffuse bass response on the Neo that is a little harder to pinpoint but it does not sound quite as warm.
Again, neither have a terrible hard-hitting sub-bass presence, more to the polite supportive side than anything and nothing you could exactly monitor with leaving the mid-bass of both to carry much of the fundamentals and PRaT.
On the top side, the upper bass of the 99 Neo is on a linear drop more than the 99 Classic which tends to beef up the upper bass and lower mids a bit more. The Classic is technically elevating from 500Hz to around 1k whereas the 99 Neo drops to and remains steady over the same marker.
For me, the 99 Neo mids are quite different in their response between the two headphones. The linear drop from the low-end continues into the mids on the 99 Neo with only a minor plateau from around 500-1k. As a result, vocals sound a bit further back, a bit darker and less airy sounding though still smooth and easy on the ear.
The Classic, on the other hand, has a tiny drop in the upper bass before elevating slowly up to 1k. There is a pleasing contrast between the midbass response and the forward vocal presence as a result and more than decent instrumental clarity as a result of that tiny upper bass dip.
Instrumental clarity and timbre are a touch brighter sounding on the Classic with less of a predominance of lower order harmonics than the 99 Neo which has a stronger fundamentals performance. Partial overtone performance is good on both so it unlikely you will hit upon any sharp after tastes with a natural-sounding attack in percussion passages and very little sibilance.
Treble performance on both is very similar with a slightly boosted upper treble compared to slightly dipped upper mids to lower treble performance. It nicely avoids sibilance and any unwanted harshness but you also lose a tiny bit of snap and bite in percussion passages.
The 99 Neo does have a tiny bit more 8-10k emphasis than the Classic but not by a huge amount, just enough to produce some good contrast with that low-end fullness. This makes the 99 Neo a bit more suitable for EDM and some RnB tracks that tend to sound rely less on mid-centric vocals and instrumental passages and more on bass/treble contrast and energy.